October 7, 2014
Assessing the effects of internationalizing policies on doctoral education in Malaysia
By Anya Klyukanova & Roxana Chiappa
“In Malaysia, with the right qualification, almost anybody can get at least some kind a tertiary education”. With this quote, Dr. Roshada Hashim, Director of USIM ‘Alamiyyah International Centre, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia and former Dean of the Institute of Graduate Studies at the Universiti Sains Malaysia, starts her explanation about the effect of internationalization policies on Malaysian doctoral education.
CIRGE had the opportunity to hold an extended conversation with Dr. Hashim, who shed light on the ongoing process of internationalization of doctoral education. Her vast experience as an investigator, formative professors, and top administrator for more than 20 years in Malaysia as well as research collaborator worldwide, makes her an expert voice to elucidate the challenge of doctoral education in Malaysia.
Malaysia ranks 11th in the world in attracting large numbers of international students. The government has been explicit in its attempt to internationalize higher education. How do you see this affecting doctoral education in Malaysia?
We are now seeing an increasing number of international universities opening branches of their universities in Malaysia. Because the government wants Malaysia to be a higher education hub, we have liberalized our educational policy to the extent that universities can open branch campuses here. This resulted in universities from the United Kingdom and Australian opening branch campuses and we are expecting an even larger number of top universities from other foreign countries to open their branch campuses in Malaysia. Although these branch campuses will initially offer undergraduate programs, it stands to reason that these universities will expand to provide postgraduate programs resulting in an influx of doctoral students coming from abroad to Malaysia, but not just to study at Malaysian universities, but foreign ones as well. The fees charged by the foreign universities are only a portion of what they would pay if they were to study in United Kingdom for example, or their own country, so these are very effective circumstances for many students who want to pursue doctoral degrees. Currently, public Malaysian universities offer a wide range of doctoral degrees but the presence of the foreign universities will eventually open up more opportunities for students worldwide to come to Malaysia and study.
Quality assurance is a hot topic in doctoral education in these days. What is the quality assurance process at these new universities?
Well, until now, every program has to go through the rigorous standards set by the Malaysian Qualifications Agency and the Ministry of Education. Malaysian students have an opportunity either to study at government or private universities and would experience the same quality assurance mechanism. The difference is that the price is a tenth in government universities, because education in government universities is highly subsidized, students pay a very small portion of the fees. Therefore, many students automatically will try to get into government universities, especially because many government universities are mature, very well equipped (and have a good infrastructure), in all, they are more attractive. But having said this, private universities are developing quickly and they are interested in improving their quality standards. Obviously many are well funded and therefore are able to improve at a faster rate than public ones.
Well, from my perspective, I notice a serious problem of unequal quality among our international students. Quality standards differ greatly from one nation to another nation, which, in my opinion, is affecting the success of their graduate education here in Malaysia. For example, we get a lot of students from developing countries with various quality of skills and knowledge. Although everybody has a Bachelor’s or a Master’s degree, the standards differ so much that when they come to our universities, these students sometimes need to catch up with our standards or they realize that they cannot follow the advance level that we have in our classes. Sometimes their academic qualification and the training they had received at home are not at par with our standards and therefore they have difficulties being admitted into our programs. We have had to take measures to level up the competencies and I believe it has affected how we take in students and who we take in hence they may have to spend more time to complete their studies. Many universities in Malaysia have a policy to provide education for everyone. This policy applies not just to Malaysian students but it applies to all students who want to study in Malaysia, and because of this policy, we have an issue of quality.
Besides, we also notice that there are students who fulfill the requirements to attend graduate school but lack the required language proficiency. There is a pool of students who have gone through a bachelor’s degree in their home country and since their country has limited opportunities for postgraduate studies, these students have to attend graduate school elsewhere. In doctoral studies, students more often than not have to write a dissertation in English. Therefore, we are now very selective and only take students who have a certain level of English proficiency. It is indeed an unfortunate situation because it doesn’t mean that if you can’t speak English, you aren’t good enough for a doctoral program. Because of their inability to speak English and to formulate their arguments, we think they’re not smart. So it is very likely that we “miss” good doctoral students. We need to come up with creative solutions to address this gap in our education system.
Do you see PhD students enhancing international collaboration?
Definitely. I think that’s how we’ve been surviving all these years. It’s how we’ve been able to improve our network. Many international students are from developing countries and become professors in their countries. Also, a good number of them work later in the ministries of their countries and in turn influence policies. Over the years, we have found that our alumni are the ones with whom current PhD students connect and start collaboration. A lot of our collaboration is a result having educated them here during their PhD education
Do you think that the influx of international students is affecting the experience for both local student and academic staff, as well as international students and scholars within your universities?
I always tell people here that there is a culture shock on both sides. It is not only the international students who have to adjust to their new surroundings and culture, there’s a culture shock on the university’s side, too. As our universities mature and have more diverse groups of university students, the culture shock affects more of the non academic staff. We, the academic staff, are familiar with the do’s and don’ts of how people from different countries behave. However, the non academic staff have had very little exposure in the past to people from different cultures. We in Malaysian universities need to understand and know how to address people from different cultures. It’s not so much that we expect the international students to adjust to our culture, but that we have to become more knowledgeable about other cultures and adjust to theirs as well.
Overall, international students are welcomed and accepted by both the university and the community surrounding the universities. The willingness to understand and accept different cultures must penetrate the entire university, including administrators and lecturers/faculty including the local students as well as among the international students themselves, otherwise we are not offering a very good learning and working environment. We need to be willing to give and take and not close our minds. I tell this to the international students and I tell this to our people. International students need to adjust to us, and we need to adjust to them. It is a positive and mutual adaptation process.
Recently, the Malaysian government implemented a policy that aims to educate 200,000 international students by the year 2020, which is projected to boost the economy by about 180 billion USD. The success that Malaysia has been experiencing by focusing on higher education may prove to be a model copied by many other developing economies.